Adventure . . . . Spring 2000

in the Harris Mountains
New Zealand's south island
photo © Linde Waidhofer


from the Spring 2000 issue



      It is almost five in the evening, a late spring evening. I stand on a high rock and ice border somewhere between Aspen and Crested Butte, peeling climbing skins off the bottoms of my skis. In the last 24 hours I’ve climbed a 14,000 foot peak, survived hundreds of feet of breakable crust, camped out beside a wilderness hot springs, and played on the perfect corn snow of high basins. In front of me now, on the other side of Conundrum Pass, crusty slabs of snow are turning pink, gold. Out of nowhere a coyote appears, trots across this alpine fantasy landscape, disappears around a rocky buttress. The slope drops clear out of sight. I’m going to ski down that?… Down there?… Well, maybe. Yes. I’m going to try. My companions, all of them certified superskiers, don’t seem nervous, they’re not. But I’m nervous as hell. My telemark skills are new and untested, my pack feels too heavy, my breathing too. But then I survive a couple of turns. The crust holds. The slope drops off, steepens, but never quite steepens beyond my limit. Lower down the snow softens to velvet the color of sunset, and each turn seems better than the last. I am overcome with crazy irrational exhilaration. Thousands of feet lower, in the darkening forest, getting ready to trudge out to the old town of Gothic, we look at each other and grin: “Man, that was some adventure!”

Adventure and skiing. Skiing and adventure. Synonyms? Hardly. Do they go together? Perfectly. Adventure, like true love, is hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it. For me, an adventure is any experience that combines a high degree of excitement, challenge and uncertainty, in a setting that is unfamiliar, unusual or mysterious. Like all definitions, this one seems a bit dry; it lacks the intense emotion of actual adventure. But that’s okay, everyone’s probably experienced a real adventure at some time or other. If only briefly, if only by accident.

Skiing is a natural road to adventure. In fact, the possibility of adventure is one of the most remarkable things about skiing. A good reason for loving the sport instead of merely liking it. After all, no one can have an adventure on a tennis court.… But the first-time beginner, honestly scared on top of a five-foot knoll, but ready to push off nonetheless in search of new emotions, really is about to experience an adventure. Certainly, early-day skiers hiking up the steep spring snow of Tuckerman’s ravine, were doing so more in search of adventure than simple exercise.

Yet today, after one has learned how to ski, there is a sort of fork in the path. You can just—well—just ski around, just ‘recreate,’ with a pair of expensive high-tech skis on your feet, sliding smoothly and elegantly from one run to the next, logging pleasurable but predictable miles, carving hundreds of perfect but perfectly safe turns. (Skiing, even exquisite skiing, it turns out, is not automatically an adventure.) Or, from time to time, you can give in to that tiny whisper of temptation and desire that seems to be telling you: ‘today, this day, this run, this turn, could be like no other....’ You can still grab your skis in the morning, go off looking for adventure and find it. A few examples:

Adventure on skis might be a trans-Sierra ski tour in spring, endless hours of uphill slogging, head down into the wind, then tracing a perfect set of tracks down a valley you’ve never seen before, to a frozen lake you didn’t even know was there....

Adventure on skis might be jumping off the biggest cornice you’ve ever tried to jump (and aren’t quite sure you can handle) and somehow making it....

Adventure on skis might be exploring the untracked beauty of a new (for you) valley, on the flank of a new (for you) mountain, in a new (for you) part of the world, New Zealand, Chile or Austria, or maybe New Mexico or Montana....

Adventure on skis is what you find, or feel, or face on a slope that looks far too steep, or far too icy, or far too bumpy for you to ski, but which somehow you can’t resist trying, although you can’t really explain why you want to ski it so badly either....

Adventure on skis gives you a rush which is not purely physical, not purely mental, but a hybrid happiness of skill and daring, anticipation and anxiety, self confidence, self awareness and self control....

Adventure on skis is when you’re out there…way out there…and you keep going....

Am I saying that to have a great day on skis you have to be scared, or at least a bit nervous? Absolutely not. For that matter adventure, as I define it, is not an essential ingredient of a great day on skis. It’s another dimension altogether. Adventure is something extra that can be added to the skiing experience. And I think accepting risk is big part of it.

An all-consuming quest for security has pretty much eliminated the possibility of adventure from the mostly urban environments in which we live. Today there’s even a certain tendency to eliminate the possibility adventure at ski areas. Life is pretty secure for most of us, most of the time—I’m not complaining. I’ve traveled enough to know that Americans are among the luckiest people on earth in that regard. But life without adventure—that is to say, without risk—loses much of its spice. We need ‘free zones,’ uncontrolled environments, where we can take risks, where we can encounter the uncontrolled, unforeseen consequences of our actions, live with them and savor them. Mountains are, should always be such a free zone. Winter, snow, steepness, a pair of skis, imagination, trepidation, resolve, excitement, performance—seems to me the perfect recipe for adventure.

You’ll know if it’s a real adventure, or just one more good afternoon on the slopes. The risk/reward ratio will tell you. Adventure is all about taking risks, the right risks for the right reasons. This is what distinguishes adventure from simple nuttiness, carelessness, insouciance or folly. Putting others at risk by irrationally fast skiing, for example, is not the sort of risk I mean. This is the antithesis of adventure. An adventure, on skis or off, always calls your whole being into play. Judgment, nerve, experience and practice allow you to chose the right risks for the right reasons. And the right risks produce the greatest rewards.

Ducking under the ropes and blindly skiing into an avalanche start zone is not the sort of risk-taking that leads to real adventure. Playing ‘chicken’ with nature is just dumb; and Russian roulette doesn’t qualify as adventure either. It is true there are more opportunities for ski adventures beyond area boundaries than inside them, but skiers still have to pay a lot of dues before they’re ready for such adventures. Patiently building strength, polishing technique, learning about snow—there just aren’t many shortcuts for skiers in search of adventure. The most adventurous skier I’ve ever had the privilege to ski with, Scott Schmidt, is also one of the most concentrated and thoughtful skiers I can think of. Scott survives his radical ski descents not because he has more skill than most skiers (which he definitely does) but because he has more judgment and experience. Adventure isn’t easy; if it were, it wouldn’t be adventure. Any adventure,it seems to me, on skis or off, takes you right up to your limits, and sometimes beyond. Adventure and lazy comfort are mutually exclusive.

And for the rest of us? Adventure for the common man? or woman? for the non-Scott Schmidts of the skiing universe? It’s out there, waiting. Because in addition to the element of risk, there is also the ‘strangeness factor.’ The off-the-beaten-path factor. The unfamiliar context. The rediscovery of mystery in skiing. Exploring a big new mountain without consulting the trail map feels like an adventure—and it is. Exploring a new dimension of sliding, like snowboarding or telemarking, after years and years on familiar boards feels like an adventure—and it is. At least until you get too good again. Skiing in another country where you’re not sure you can even read the trail signs feels like an adventure—and I think it is. But mainly, you and I experience adventure on skis whenever we challenge our own limits, whenever we tackle an unfamiliar dimension of winter with resolve and spirit, whenever we throw ourselves into a new skiing context. Another way of saying the same thing is that learning can and should be an adventure. It is for young children, It usually is for skiers. Trying something new on skis certainly involves a risk of failure, just as real and sometimes more serious than the risk of a fall or worse. Skiers’ egos are as fragile as any, but they expand gloriously into new dimensions of winter performance.

Can’t handle deep snow? There’s an adventure waiting, if you stop shying away from it and put yourself on the line (and into the fluff). Big bumps got you freaked? There’s an adventure ahead. In fact there are a lot of adventures ahead. In 24 years of full-time skiing I haven’t noticed the adventure quotient tapering off. My guess is that only adventure (as opposed to the simpler satisfactions of recreation, or exercise, or sport) can sustain a skiing passion for 24 years, or for a lifetime. Why should anyone ever let their skiing experience become too predictable, too safe, too secure? I don’t plan to. As Neil Stebbins once remarked, skiers don’t get together over drinks just to brag about what what a safe, steady, controlled day of skiing they’ve had. Adventure is skiing on the wild side—those are the memories you talk about, treasure.

Halfway down the backside of Mont Fort, at Verbier, halfway to paradise, or perdition. Everything is perfect, but? The snow is perfect but much too steep for comfort. This couloir is perfect but much too exposed, much too long. The weather is perfect, cloudless skies stretching east over the Grand Plateau toward the toy-sized summit of the Matterhorn on the horizon, but I’m much too busy concentrating on the skiing to notice the view. My muscles go on strike, tell me they won’t turn. Tell me this is absurd. But I negotiate their cooperation — for a first turn anyway. Just one. It works. It feels great. So does the next, and the next. Better and better. As we ski out the bottom of this giant face, miles from nowhere, completely out of sight of one of the biggest ski areas in the Alps, I know I’ll remember this amazing run for years and years. And I have. Every detail is crisp: the stone bridge across the frozen river skiing home, the hoarfrosted railing on the summit that we climbed through to reach our gully, the shape of turns that had to work or else, our tracks stretching back up Mont Fort behind us till they disappear, a mountain out of a dream, a day defined by adventure.    Adventure . . . . Spring 2000
© Lito Tejada-Flores